Oasis of Radical Wellbeing

Interaction in teaching - What is compassion pedagogy all about?

As a teacher, are you ever frustrated and annoyed when some students do not master the basic knowledge of the field you teach and the basic study skills? When they lack motivation? It's frustrating and annoying, but what could be done? As one way, you could change your own thinking with the help of compassion pedagogy.
Aalto Wellbeing Picnic 2022 Mölkky. (c) Mikko Raskinen / Aalto University
Playing Mölkky during the Wellbeing Picnic in 2022. (c) Mikko Raskinen / Aalto University

"The atmosphere was always encouraging and it was meaningful to come to classes."

"A general discussion in which anyone could participate if they wanted."

"The teachers are nice and got me interested in the day's topics, encouraging feedback after each lesson and the workplace had a nice atmosphere. The grip was not too harsh, but relaxed and encouraging."

"The lecturer explicitly and repeatedly promoted the consideration and inclusion of marginalized communities in the group tasks/final project." 

"These things were promoted by how relaxed the assessment and commenting was in class. The comments from the teachers were constructive and encouraging. I liked how the teachers took everyone's development into account."

"The teachers were nice and warm to all the students, which I think also improved the group spirit. :)"

"I felt that I could do exactly according to my own level and get to know new programs stress-free."

The quotes above and at the end of the article are Aalto University students' course feedback answering a question about promoting inclusion. The results of the survey provide a good basis and direction for the development of teaching. This article has been inspired by the students' experiences, which reinforce our understanding of the strengths of compassionate teaching.

What does compassion pedagogy mean?

Compassion can be thought of as the competence of interaction and encounter. Compassionate pedagogy means implementing teaching in such a way that wellbeing related to learning and teaching is taken into account, we identify what causes harmful stress and obstacles to learning and we try to create a learning-promoting environment with teaching solutions.

Compassionate pedagogy creates opportunities for all participants to interact. It pays attention to wellbeing related to learning, i.e. it creates an environment where all participants are treated with kindness and appreciation. Everyone can think for themselves under which conditions it is difficult to concentrate and learn. In conditions conducive to learning, a student gets the feeling that they are accepted as a complete person and that they are valued. Someone may have, for example, weak basic knowledge in mathematics. During a mathematics course, this can be a problem and the student and the teacher get stressed about the same thing. So a solution should be sought together.

A situation where the starting level is an obstacle to learning and hinders progress in studies is miserable for a student. A weak starting level is probably due to previous studies, and the development of competence can be solved together with the student without evaluating this on a 'good student - bad student' axis. The teacher's compassionate and encouraging approach can help the student to dare to ask questions and feel that they can learn, even if they are not a expert on that particular subject.

(Self-)compassion as part of pedagogy

The basis of compassion pedagogy can be examined through the concept of self-compassion. Self-compassion consists of three areas:

  1. kind and understanding attitude towards oneself
  2. understanding of a common, shared humanity
  3. conscious presence

According to research, self-compassion is strongly connected with wellbeing and reduces stress and fear of failure. Therefore, it is a potential way of increasing wellbeing in the higher education community, as well. Self-compassion is needed and it is especially useful in difficult and challenging situations. When equipped with self-compassion, a person is able to experience challenging situations without being to hard on themself. They learn from these experiences and get used to accepting negative emotions and difficulties as a part of all people's lives. In addition to helping the individual person, compassion pedagogy can be thought of as a way to create an operating culture that fosters self-compassion.

A teacher's compassionate attitude towards students' knowledge and learning helps to accept a wide variety of students' different levels of knowledge and skills - to not classify students as good and bad. The ability to put oneself in another's position is a central part of compassion pedagogy.

Compassion is both a feeling and action. Compassion can be seen as a person's ability to perceive the emotional states of others and as a desire to act helpfully. As a teacher, you can think about how you can help students learn; how your attitude affects the atmosphere and studying. Compassion as a whole is something to do together.

There are three types of factors in interaction: the givers and the receivers of compassion and the persons witnessing a compassionate act. The teacher sets a model for how other members of the group are treated, whether 'mistakes' are allowed, and if they can be used constructively as part of the learning material. This is how compassion catches on!

Why should you be interested in compassion pedagogy?

According to research, self-compassion is strongly connected to wellbeing. It reduces stress and fear of failure. Increasing compassion is a potential way to increase wellbeing in the higher education community. According to research conducted in universities, a compassionate learning culture has a positive effect on e.g. on learning the content itself. Focusing on the actual matter becomes possible when stress, shame, fear and other obstacles to learning are removed.

For example, think about how it feels for a student who has made it to Aalto to study but who then doesn't pass the mathematics course at the beginning of their studies. Or a student for whom the course seems far too difficult and the progress of their studies starts to worry . What type of attitude do you use to move forward in such situations? How could they be solved together with the students and brought out as things that do not rate the student as good or bad?

Community vs. individual - What kind of culture do we want to teach and study in?

Cooperation and an organized society require compassion. The nature of compassion-based pedagogy is always transformative, i.e. renewing. Its aim is to critically examine familiar patterns of thought and action and bring about change. Transformative learning refers to deep learning, growth, development and change. Its goal is that students can feel that they can use their full potential and find ways to improve the quality of life also in their families, communities and society. Compassion enables creativity and innovation, prerequisites for innovative learning.

Compassion is an essential part of social correctness, and a compassionate pedagogical culture fosters community. Communal learning culture can be thought of as a counterforce to a culture that emphasizes individuality, individual interest and competitiveness. Different perspectives and sources of information are included, and the goal is to find communal solutions to problems and challenges. As new social discussions surface, students may have more information than the teacher, and thinking about topics together can offer completely new dimensions.

What can a teacher benefit from compassionate pedagogy?

Teaching can be stressful for teachers, for example, due to the increasing number of students. As a consequence, they face an increasingly diverse group of students. Teachers feel inadequate in the face of growing demands. However, the teacher is an important example and model in creating a compassionate teaching and learning culture: When in a more compassionate culture, students know how to face both their teacher and other students as concise human beings, in a friendly manner and acceptingly even in stressful situations. If, for example, MyCourses does not show the group work evaluation at the exact moment expected, then maybe there is a reason for that. At least you can ask the teacher kindly about it.

What can compassionate pedagogy be in the practice of university teaching?

A culture of compassion means a space where compassion can happen in different ways in different situations and communities. How could we create a compassionate university culture? The applications and methods of compassion pedagogy are characterized as reflexivity. You may ask yourself: What are my beliefs and attitudes? What are the needs and wishes of other people? Reflexivity makes it possible to meet different identities.

When the reciprocal nature of the teaching is realized, the student is offered a place to develop the ability to discuss their own and others' thoughts. Pedagogies of compassion are all "critical" in the sense that they are united by the power of social change. With their help, it is possible to identify and challenge moralistic speech. When compassion is understood in teaching as an action as well as a feeling, it is helping, sharing, asking for help and caring for others.

The aim of the methods of compassion pedagogy is to increase the feeling of belonging and to understand oneself and others. They aim to support the learner's commitment to studies and gaining success in them by putting the student's needs in the epicenter, hence promoting the development of an empathetic culture. Such methods are e.g. interactive teaching, joint reflection, joint development and partnership projects. Methods that seek to meet and get to know another improve cognitive performance. Beneficiaries are both the giver and the recipient of compassion.

In compassion, it would be good to also pay attention to the environment: what kind of opportunities the learning environment provides for acts of compassion. What promotes a higher education culture of compassion? Could compassion be part of students' orientation or the start of the course?

How to learn compassion pedagogy? Awareness - Experiences - Exercises

Compassion is a competency of interaction and encounter. It can be learned and developed, as any skill. Knowledge and awareness of the meaning of compassion is a dimension of learning, meaning you can learn a lot by reading. Experiences about the effect of compassion on students' learning experiences and a teacher's wellbeing can be obtained, for example, by observing the teaching of others.

Compassion can be practiced: start with these self-compassion exercises. You can start your own way of incorporating compassion into teaching, i.e. using the application of compassion pedagogy, by experimenting and gathering experiences little by little.

"The teachers in our group took everyone's starting level into account and together with the students created an open and safe environment to try new things and/or do unique work."

"It was nice that everyone's tasks were always reviewed at the end of the day and I got comprehensive feedback on the work every time. The atmosphere was always encouraging and it was meaningful to come to classes."

"The teachers of our group created an open and safe environment together with the students to try new things and/or do unique work."

"It was good that the principles of a safe space were reviewed at the beginning of the course."

"Discussions in small groups helped to bring out one's own thoughts, if one did not want to say one's own thoughts to the large group in the discussion at the end of the lecture."

"The topic itself sparked a discussion, even though people had challenges understanding each other. The teachers listened and accepted different opinions about things."

"The evaluations were inclusive and the teachers managed to create a fairly relaxed and safe atmosphere for the course."

"Thank you (name removed) for another great course! Your courses are always well-structured, clear and corresponding to the workload. You also take students' feedback into account very well in the courses, and your attitude towards students is very understanding. In your courses, you also always have the feeling that the course can be completed well and guidance and help are always available. Thank you! :)"

"The professor was very patient and supportive no matter the background and previous knowledge of students. It really felt like there were no "silly" questions and it was a pleasant space to work in overall." 

"The teacher's initial inquiry about our background and initial situation for participating in the course. It made it possible for the course to allow you to be yourself, at the same level of competence as you are, and to accumulate your own competence further with the help of the course. Discussions and readings for meetings were the best."


Gibbs, P. (Ed.). (2017). The pedagogy of compassion at the heart of higher education. Springer.

Carson, T., & Johnston, I. (2000). The difficulty with difference in teacher education: Toward a pedagogy of compassion. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 46(1).

Zembylas, M. (2013). The “crisis of pity” and the radicalization of solidarity: Toward critical pedagogies of compassion. Educational Studies, 49(6), 504-521.

Pessi, A. (2014) Myötätunto onnen lähteenä. Teoksessa Uusitalo-Malmivaara, L. toim. Positiivisen psykologian voima, PS-kustannus, 179-199

Vandeyar, S., & Swart, R. (2016). Educational change: a case for a 'pedagogy of compassion'. Education as Change, 20(3), 141-159.


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